Characterization is decidedly the most important feature. Consider a filthy, dimly lit alleyway between decaying tenements in the nether reaches of a once-great metropolis. Detective Sergeant “Slats” Dooley, Homicide Division, stands over the corpse of a young woman, viciously raped and murdered. He observes how nicely the Donna Karan heather tweed suit complements the blonde’s coloring. Her dove Louboutin sling-back stilettos, now piercing her chest, match a Fendi bag lying in a puddle of blood.
Er, what’s wrong with that picture?
It’s not likely Slats internal dialogue would be so utterly focused on the corpse’s fashion sense. Specious details of thought, word and deed can put a reader right off. And justifiably so. Sorry to use a hyperbolic example, but I’ve seen such inappropriate characterization before. It’s fine for a protagonist to reflect some of the traits of the writer. In fact, it’s probably inescapable, regardless of whether there are gender or age differences between author and creation. The necessary discipline of the writer is to know each character with such absolute surety that they stay, well, in character. Some discovery can result from evolution, but consistency is important. Sometimes that means creating bios. For the beginner, I highly recommend it. This isn’t an exercise in pro forma hacking, rather it allows the writer to know a character, visualize that person, and understand how he or she will react.
The reason for this is simple. This empathy is the basis of rational motivation. All conflicts, the central driving forces of the narrative, will result from the actions and interactions of the characters. How’s that for absolutism? The alternative is to use an omniscient point of view. Not good. Either the writer essentially becomes a detached narrator who tells the reader whatever is needed to make the conflict accessible or the focus of the PoV jumps from the head of one character to the next to achieve the same result. There are many instances of omniscience in classical and children’s literature. The classics are entitled because of artistic or cultural significance. Children’s literature is for children. If one writes for an adult or young adult audience, the standard is higher. Even in writing humor, the author’s job is serious. To treat a reader with less dignity is an insult, which will not likely be ignored.
Discovery, the process by which the reader comes to understand the narrative through the accumulation of facts, is a natural way to develop characters. A method often applied by new writers is the “info dump.” This can take the form of a conversation or internal dialogue of a character standing in front of a mirror, but, in either case, the writer intrudes to unload a lot of information in a short time for the sake of avoiding the more onerous task of introducing the reader through more natural means. It’s a cheat. Don’t do it. It’s a buzz kill. Half the fun for the reader is learning the characters’ personalities through discovery. The other half is grasping the conflict in the same manner. Language is symbolic. Achieving mutual understanding through words is art. Info dumping is low art. Expect as much effort from the reader as the reader expects from the writer, and vice versa. The theater of the imagination demands hard work.
Consider this excerpt from my novel, Never:
Denny stared at the cold, greasy fried eggs. The things lay on his plate, sunnyside up, burnt at the edges, yolks cooked to a consistency between liquid and rubber. His bacon was mostly fat and the toast burnt but slathered with enough Blue Bonnet to give the cinders a chewy quality. Sipping watery orange juice gave his growling stomach a chance to prepare for the incipient insult. Mom, in bathrobe and slippers, clattered dishes in the kitchen.
“Eat your breakfast or you’ll go to Sunday school hungry. We don’t have much time.”
What a joke. Denny knew the score. Those old maids from the next street over, the Campbell sisters, had come calling last week. They hadn’t
seen the Robinsons in church for a while. Why wasn’t Denny in Sunday school? His religious instruction was lagging behind the rest of his class. If he missed too much he wouldn’t get a personalized Bible at graduation next month. His new clothes hadn’t been washed and chafed his neck. He was tired, sweaty, and pissed off.
He tore off a corner of toast, brushed the congealed mess from one of the eggs, and cut a wedge with his fork. The smell gagged him, but he shoved it in and chewed.
“All of it!”
A verse kept buzzing in his brain. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” Maybe this was the suffering the Sunday school teacher meant, but it didn’t make sense. He stuffed in a piece of bacon, the sweetness of it ruined by overcooking. Denny tried cramming in as much toast as he could and then adding more egg. That seemed to improve the taste.
“That’s better. Clean your plate. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
Tears in his eyes, he managed all of it but a bit of yolk and sipped juice to keep it going down.
“C’mon, c’mon, Denny!” Mom pulled his chair out so quickly he had to push against the table with his hands to avoid banging his forehead on the edge. She jerked him off the chair and toward the front door. “Don’t stomp your feet,” she hissed. “You’ll wake the baby.”
Actions, words and internal dialogue. Is there any doubt about the Denny’s situation or his parents’ concern for the perceptions of outsiders as opposed to that of their older child? There’s no laundry list of abuses, only the feelings of a little boy and his reactions to the treatment. Is Denny’s mother an ogre or is she frustrated by the unreasonable duty
she shoulders alone? The father isn’t absent, however, his implicit presence hangs over all of it. If this snippet didn’t pique your sympathy or righteous anger, you might be made of stone. So then, that must’ve been my intent in the manner I chose to develop these characters. Show, don’t
It works every time.
Next week, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll share part two of this essay and explore the development of setting. Until then, be well.